Black Biker History
I do not claim to be an expert on any historical MC stuff, but I have always found it fascinating. Being a guy who tries to emulate what others have done in the past, I have always found it to be important and respectful to learn the history of the source of my passion. One aspect of chopper history that has always fascinated me are the black chopper builders and motorcycle clubs. That being said, I’ll just spout off things that I have learned through my chopper years thus far.
Cliff Vaughs. Member of The Chosen Few MC. If you don't know who this bad mafucka was, he was the guy who designed the bikes ridden by Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper in 'Easyrider'. Him and another badass black dude named Ben Hardy built the iconic Captain America and Billy bikes for the movie. Hardy was a very skilled bike builder, and built 2 “Billy” bikes and 3 “Captain America” bikes. Being that it was 1969, they got no credit for building arguably the most famous choppers in history.
The Chosen Few Motorcycle Club. An important piece of chopper / club culture. They were founded in 1959 in Los Angeles. “When you talk of the Outlaw Bikers you automatically think of ‘Them Crazy White Boys’ doing what a lot of folk wish they could do. Live Life Like You Want & Fuck You And Your Rules. Well Guess What? There was some crazy Black bikers who felt the same way, and didn’t give a Fuck. Thus was born the Black Outlaw Bikers!” The first White boy to come to the Chosen Few MC was “White Boy Art.” He came around 1960, followed by “White Boy Tom”. Soon they started to attract other White outlaw riders that wanted to join them. The Chosen Few became a multi-racial MC with chapters that were all Black, all White, half White and half Mexican, half Black and half White, all Mexican, half Mexican and half Indian, a few Asians & one Iranian dude. They were one of the first, if not the very first, multi-racial one percenter club.
The East Bay Dragons Motorcycle Club. The baddest of the bad, in my opinion of course (mainly because they are from Oakland and Bay Area chopper influence, blah blah)......... Originally started as a car club, they made the switch to an M.C. in 1959. Due to harassment from law enforcement, Long time friend Sonny Barger suggested they switch to a motorcycle club because bikes were more discreet than cars, easier to maintain, and cheaper to work on. In 1959, and even well into the sixties, although there were two Harley Davidson dealerships in Oakland, no dealership in the Bay Area would sell bikes to black customers. All the original founding members had to buy used bikes in order to obtain ownership of one. The Black Panthers came to The Dragons for ideas and support during their creation.
Due to the support both organizations had for each other, some of the Black Panthers eventually became members of the East Bay Dragons after the Black Panthers disbanded. Most of the black clubs around back then rode dressers and baggers, while The Dragons rode choppers. For all of you Sons Of Anarchy fans, The Grim Bastards were loosely based on the East Bay Dragons and their relationship with the Hells Angels that surpassed racial barriers during the 1960s and 1970s. To this day, they are still an all black, all male, all Harley Davidson riding motorcycle club....son.
This section is for the ladies because I'm a helluva romantic. Let's talk about the legendary Bessie Stringfield. In the 30's and 40's, Bessie started tossing a penny on a map of the USA and riding her motorcycle wherever said penny landed. She rode to all 48 states and traversed the country around 8 times I think. Hotels wouldn't rent rooms to black folks, let alone a little black woman riding a Harley probably covered in road grime, so she often slept on her motorcycle. Can you imagine how fucking gnarly that must have been, especially in middle America? Bessie rode Milwaukee iron. She said of the 27 Harleys she owned in her lifetime, “To me, a Harley is the only motorcycle ever made.” She was such a skilled rider that she would also do stunt riding in carnival shows.
During WW2, she worked as a civilian dispatch rider. Her job was mostly to carry documents between domestic U.S. Bases. Bessie was married and divorced 6 times. When she divorced her 3rd husband Arther Stringfield, he asked her to keep his last name because he knew that one day Bessie would make that name famous. She moved to Miami in the 1950's and eventually started the Ironhorse Motorcycle Club. Of course she felt the hardships of the racial situation at the time, but she also felt the hardships of being a woman at the time. Disguised as a man, Bessie won a flat track race but was denied the prize money after she took off her helmet.
As I mentioned before, she was a stunt rider. She would get attention from the press by riding around while standing on the seat of her bike. She was nicknamed the “Negro Motorcycle Queen” and later the “Motorcycle Queen of Miami.” Take a moment to take all of that in and think about how much of a badass Bessie was. Here is a photo of her on her (from what I can tell anyways) 1940 61 cubic inch Harley Davidson OHV. Also known as the Knucklehead.
"If It Ain't Long, It's Wrong"
Let’s talk about a man of choppers. If you are into chopped motorcycles and haven't heard his name, you probably need to start over. For those of you that are just along for the read, let's talk about Sugar Bear. In the world of choppers, having long springer front forks is almost a must a some point. There have been dozens of manufacturers of these types of forks and almost all of them are floppy, sketchy, and just plain questionable. However, there are a few builders that come to my mind who made springers that are undoubtably superior to the rest: Dick Allen, Denver Mullins, Arlen Ness, and Sugar Bear. I have personally seen and/or owned all of these at one time, and the quality truly is mind blowing. Bear got into bikes at the tail end of the 60's, which led to him meeting, learning from, and befriending Ben Hardy (One of the masterminds behind the Easyrider bikes).
Sugar Bear opened his own shop in 1971 in South Central Los Angeles and started building spring forks in lengths up to 18" over stock, using solid steel to construct them during a time when most springers were made out of tubing. He was a mathematician when it came to figuring out rake and trail, which resulted in a front fork that could be ridden with one hand with no bounce and zero flop. Something that was usually unheard of with a long springer. Now it was on. He had a few advertisements throughout the years in numerous magazines, but most of his work was done by word-of-mouth.
Fame wasn't something that he was seeking. He just wanted to make a living doing the thing that he loved, building choppers. This is something that I envy very much. As time went on and the styles of choppers changed and evolved, Sugar Bear stayed true to his roots and kept building them his way. This led to more and more business over the years, and turned into a family affair. His son "Little Bear" now works side by side with him keeping the legacy going. This last paragraph is from Street Chopper Magazine because I think it's said perfectly: Sugar Bear and his choppers and infamous Springer front ends have stood the test of time. Sugar Bear is a true chopper-culture icon. His influence through the evolution of the custom motorcycle industry has left a mark and long-lasting impression on riders and chopper enthusiasts alike for decades past and for many years to come.
As an individual and devoted bike builder who has been there since the birth of choppers, it is with great pleasure to have Sugar Bear's contributions help shape chopper history and his legacy to continue and flourish. This is a culture that I have a huge amount of passion and respect for. Despite the stigma that the biker culture has, the era and culture of choppers (for the most part) is very color blind. I am aware of this, as are my "brothers of color". There are so many more black clubs and people that can be talked about, but my article was strictly on those that I am personally educated enough on to be confident to share what I know with you. I try not to step over the boundaries when I talk about things as sacred as motorcycle clubs and culture.
Here are some time period photos that I feel work perfectly as an ending to this word explosion. FTW.